A morning’s training suddenly turned into a coastal rescue for the Runswick Bay Rescue Boat and her crew. Crewman Peter McGrath reports.
SUNDAY morning, 9.30am. Most people are putting themselves outside coffee and toast, I’m waist deep in the cold North Sea while our helmsman yanks the outboard’s starter cord.
Trainee Ian Furby and I haul ourselves over the sides and flop into the Runswick Bay Rescue Boat. We motor carefully out through the underwater rock garden that lies near our boathouse, then, clear of danger, Tom cracks the throttle and Spirit of Runswick 2 roars out to sea.
Runswick Bay Rescue Boat was founded in 1982 after the RNLI withdrew from the bay to operate from nearby Staithes. Locals felt that Runswick’s unique position and popularity in the holiday season meant it needed rescue boat cover, and raised the money to buy and equip Claymoor, the first Rescue Boat. Since then, RBRB has been called out on more than 200 occasions to assist people, boats and occasionally dogs in trouble.
We clear Kettleness headland, and Tom stops the boat to radio Humber Coastguard: “Runswick Rescue here, three crew aboard, will be on exercise about an hour. Over.” The reply is swift.
“Runswick Rescue, Humber Coastguard. We have a developing situation on Kettleness. We have an injured man on the beach... Says he’s near the waterfall. Can you attend, over?” Try and stop us.
Tom sets the boat planing over the water towards the waterfall, one of our landmarks. This is what RBRB was set up to do: use local knowledge and our small boat to get to places the big boats can’t. We spot three men sitting on the rocks, Tom steers the boat inshore.
I’m in the bows, keeping an eye out for prop-shattering rocks or trailing ropes. The water shallows, rocks loom and kelp snags our prop. “Right lads, over the side.” We jump into waist-deep water and walk the boat inshore.
Leaving our new recruit holding the boat Tom and I wade ashore scrambling over the seaweedy rocks towards the three men. One is sitting, grimacing. He slipped off a ledge and fell eight or ten feet, landing on the base of his spine in a rockpool. He can’t feel his legs, and has pains in abdomen, chest and neck.
We step back to plan. It’s a back injury: first aid rule 101 is that you don’t mess with back or head injuries. We agree it’s a job for the pros and, probably, the helicopter. The Coastguard have already ordered an ambulance which is even now wailing its way down Runswick Bay Bank. We’re both sweating inside our Typhoon drysuits. The casualty, a 38-year-old man, is starting to feel the cold.
Helmsman Tom asks me to stay with the casualty while he returns to the boathouse to pick up the paramedics. Five minutes later the boat is growling across the Bay, but already another member of the rescue boat crew has launched his personal boat and is soon clambering across the rocks with blankets and our big first aid kit. The Coastguard tells us that the rescue helicopter is en route.
The casualty is alternating between shifting in pain and looking enviously at the kayak fishermen going after cod and bass. He isn’t impressed with the ignominy of being airlifted out. The minutes drag, I get on the VHF to ask what’s happening. Lewis, our shore support man, tells me the paramedics are in the boat and about to set off.
While chatting to the injured man I see a welcome sight: four blue-boiler-suited men from Staithes Coastguards picking their way down the treacherous cliff path from Kettleness. They’ve interrupted whatever they were doing on this Sunday morning, hurtled to their depot, got togged up and brought a stretcher. Had the helicopter not been available, we’d have needed both their stretcher and their muscles.
The boat comes planing back across the bay, running fast into shore as close to us as the falling tide allows. The paramedics have to wade ashore through knee-deep water. Tom Dobson, our crew leader and a veteran of seven previous helicopter rescues has come to help out. The two Toms help lug the paramedics’ kit.
The medics get details of the accident and the casualty’s medical history. The man, although being stoical is obviously in pain and soon they have morphine going in. This is my first proper rescue since becoming a crew member and I’m impressed at the way the services are working together. No legs being cocked on lamp posts to mark territory.
We take a step back, it’s in the paramedics’ hands now until... the whine of turbines and the whop of rotor blades and the bright yellow SAR helicopter comes low over the cliff top.
Normally it does a couple of circuits of the Bay before selecting a landing site. Maybe this guy has a good Sunday roast waiting back at RAF Leconfield. He comes straight down and lands in the rocks about 150 yards from us. Seconds later a khaki-suited man jumps out and struggles across the weedy rocks.
Off comes his helmet. Useful-looking medical things are hanging off his uniform. “I’m Mike”, he says.
I know from my sailing past that once the Big Yellow Helicopter turns up, they’re in charge. I hate to perpetuate a stereotype, but Mike has a natural authority. He has a big, expensive helicopter burning fuel behind and a man with possible life-threatening injuries in front of him.
Told that the casualty has refused a neck collar, Mike tells me to stand behind him and hold his head, immobilizing his neck. That’s me for the next hour, stewing inside my drysuit while the three paramedics go to work. They work methodically, not rushing, the RAF man writing notes about the casualty on his blue glove. On goes the portable heart monitor to check for signs of a heart attack.
The casualty is more worried that he’s mucked up his mates’ day fishing than the fact he can’t feel his legs. In between being prepped for lift he gives us a bass fishing masterclass.
Satisfied, Mike starts organizing us to transfer the casualty from his rock to the stretcher. One of his mates is a big fellow, he stands at one side, our helm Tom Bottomley stands at the other. The helicopter’s lift stretcher is laid at his feet. Half of it hangs off the edge of the rock, where it has to be, given the man’s injuries.
Now the coastguards come into their own, squatting, holding the edge of the stretcher and wedging their thighs underneath to hold it stable. Tom and friend heave the man to his feet. Tom’s also been cooking inside his drysuit for a couple of hours, had piggybacked two paramedics into the rescue boat and the sweat is pouring off him as he supports the 6ft 6ins injured man’s weight.
Grunting, he pinsteps along the stretcher. Mike warns him that sitting will hurt. He’s eased down. The paramedics repeat their checks, making sure that the movement hasn’t caused any damage. All seems well and the man is eased onto his back.
Mike straps the casualty in and clips on the last strop. The coastguards steady the stretcher. Tom Dobson and I stay and spread ourselves across the piles of kit to stop them taking flight in the rotor blast. As Mike said: “Any of that sucked into the blades could ruin our whole day”. Helmsman Tom shepherds the mass of onlookers clear of helicopter harm.
The helicopter lifts off and edges across the beach towards us. Rockpools turn into spray and vanish skywards, we’re lying in a blizzard of flying seaweed and bewildered crabs that have just discovered flight. Then it’s hovering about 25ft overhead with a noise like the end of the world. Down comes the lift wire, Mike clips on and seconds later he and the casualty are off the ground. As he goes he snaps off a theatrical salute.
Parboiled and thirsty we take the Rescue Boat back across the Bay to our boathouse. All the crew who’d turned up to practice at 9.30 are still there ready to help us ashore. The casualty was on his way to hospital. We did the only thing that was possible after such a morning – handed over the to afternoon duty crew and went to the pub.
(The patient was discharged after four days’ hospital treatment for back injuries)